Two Hands, One Heart, and a Keyboard

A Rector’s Tribute

Joan Clodfelter has played a lifetime of music for God.

By Ed Kelaher

In 1951 Joan Lamar Kearns was a freshman at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She would soon marry a Navy sailor named Bob and become Joan Lamar Kearns Clodfelter. That same year she climbed onto the organ bench at Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, North Carolina. She still plays from that bench, and her tenure marches on.

Joan Clodfelter plays on at Grace Church, Lexington, North Carolina. | Photo by Ellie McKinney. Used with permission.

From 1951 to 1963, she served as a substitute and special services organist for Grace, playing for wedding and funeral services as well as some Sundays. In 1963, she became the permanent organist and choir director at Grace Episcopal Church.

Not wanting to break the heart of her loyalist Lutheran mother, she kept her Lutheran church membership for decades to come. She became a member of our Episcopal parish in the 1980s, safely after her dear mother’s passing to the nearer presence of our Lord.

To hear Joan’s take on it all, her Episcopal transfer likely triggered her mother to cause a great disturbance in the cloud of witnesses and the communion of saints.

It’s not just the 72 years. It’s the godly light Joan casts upon those who know her. An inspiring wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and mentor to many, she has endured all the trials and tribulations life brings, without diminishment of her ministry.

She doesn’t merely preside over a choir rehearsal; she holds court. At rehearsals, her opening stand-up routine is filled with quips, self-deprecating humor, biblical, and comical cultural references, and anecdotes of every flavor.

Her wit is brilliant, her mind is fast, her energy is dynamic, her inspiration is contagious, her influence on the lives of others is permanent, and her uninhibited, plainspoken, and ready witness to Jesus is inspiring. The brilliance of her musicianship and her zeal for perfection remain undiminished decades later.

Reigning above all her attributes and virtues is Joan’s faith. She loves our Lord deeply and openly. She is the living embodiment of Bach’s Soli Deo gloria — to God alone be the glory — shying away from spotlights, accolades, tributes, applause, or flattery.

Such humility made it tricky to plan Grace Church’s October 1, 2023, grand celebration of her 60th year of permanent ministry, 72 years counting her part-time service. The festivities include naming the parish’s newly renovated organ in her honor, a concert by a celebrated organist, vocal and instrumental performances by parishioners, the homecoming of several choir alumni, a grand reception, special gifts, and much more. Even all that falls short of the unspeakable gratitude and admiration of parishioners’ hearts.

Joan Clodfelter is anointed and ordained to use her spiritual gifts to lead God’s people to deepened faith and service. I once exclaimed to a group knowing her well that I have never seen the likes of her before. The quick and almost reflexive reply in unison was, “And you never will again.” Amen!

As her rector, I recently confessed to Joan how I would be so very sad if she were to retire, especially if it were sudden. She borrowed God’s words from Genesis 28:15: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”



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